In Living Color

Levi Hill often photographed color lithographic prints, mostly European images, when attempting to p

Excepting the 8% of males and 0.5% of females who are colorblind, most people see in full color. And yet, for more than half of its history, the majority of photographs made have been black-and-white images. It wasn’t until 100 years after the medium’s introduction that vivid color photographic imagery proliferated, following the successful introduction of new products and processes like Kodachrome (1935-6), Agfacolor (1936), Ektachrome (1940), Kodacolor (1942), dye-transfer printing (1946), Cibachrome (1960s), and Polaroid dye diffusion (1964).

Before that cavalcade of chromatic innovation, monochromatic images created a virtual reality, one that the public was so grateful to access and support that few questioned the absence of color as photography’s default position. Black and white images defined the new “normal” in visual representation, and as monochromatic photographic images proliferated in the mass media in the early 20th century, they took on authority and were revered for their “truthfulness.” It wasn’t until the mid-century that color photography became widespread through the production and screening of more color movies, the introduction of color television, and as 4-color-printing brightened more pages in magazines, instead of being confined to advertisements alone. Surprisingly, within the supposedly ahead-of-the-curve art and art photography communities, color photography wasn’t widely embraced until well into the 1970s.

Now that digital technology has eliminated the muss, fuss, and taint of commercialism that characterized the early development of color photography (see our earlier post on the recent death of Kodachrome), it’s worthwhile pointing out that these days, if and when black-and-white images are made at all, it’s usually for nostalgia’s sake. Not being misty-eyed types when it comes to photographic history, we invited Michelle Delaney, curator of the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to write a piece for click! about her research into some of the earliest experiments in color photography, which turn out not be as clear cut, or as black and white, as we might have imagined them to be.

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